Sunday, December 14, 2008

Constitution Defended As Judge Issues Injunction Against Religious License Plates

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ."

Americans are free to practice their religion, but the government will not establish, or favor, one religion over another. That guarantee is essential to religious freedom. If one religion is favored, that threatens the free exercise of other beliefs–or the right not to believe. That's why U.S. District Court Judge Cameron McGowan Currie was correct in stopping South Carolina from making "I Believe" license plates, shown above. From GreenvilleOnline.com:

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily stopped the state from making and issuing "I Believe" religious license plates, granting a request from a group that had argued the plates showed an unconstitutional preference for Christianity.

U.S. District Court Judge Cameron McGowan Currie issued the preliminary injunction after finding that the statute creating the plate violated the constitutional establishment clause forbidding government from establishing a religion.

The license plate, approved by the Legislature, contains a stained glass emblem with a cross on it and the words "I Believe" on top. No plates have been distributed, though hundreds have been ordered.

...Currie found that for the purposes of an injunction, the law creating the plate didn’t have a secular purpose, didn’t have a primarily secular effect and entangled religion and government. To avoid an injunction, she said, the statute would have had to have passed all three parts of that legal test.

"I find it unlikely the act satisfies even one of these," she said.

Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit earlier this year against DMV and the prison system, which makes all license plates, on behalf of some religious leaders and the Hindu American Foundation who claimed their First Amendment rights were infringed by the plates.

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the decision:

“The ‘I Believe’ license plate is a clear example of government favoritism toward one religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The court drove home an important point: South Carolina officials have no business meddling in religious matters.”

...Americans United brought the Summers v. Adams legal challenge on behalf of four local clergy the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

...Americans United also pointed out that some legislators openly admitted that they would not vote for similar plates for minority faiths.

Asked by a reporter if he would support a license plate for Islam, Rep. Bill Sandifer replied, “Absolutely and positively no…. I would not because of my personal belief, and because I believe that wouldn’t be the wish of the majority of the constituency in this house district.”

Said AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, “The ‘I Believe’ license plate sends the message that South Carolina has a favored religion. That’s one message the state is not permitted to transmit.”


South Carolina was headed in the direction of transmitting the dangerous message referred to by Mr. Khan. Once the establishment clause is violated, the state becomes the arbiter of which religions are acceptable. That distortion is reflected in the statement of Representative Sandifer, who apparently believes that the expression of particular religions depends on the wishes of the lawmaker and the majority–wishes that can turn into the tyranny of the majority. Let's hope that the temporary injunction against religious license plates becomes a permanent ban.

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